Gu Gan, born Zhang Shiqiang, was born in 1942. Studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Gu Gan soon positioned himself at the forefront of the avant-garde calligraphy movement, culminating in his participation in the first major exhibition of Modern Chinese Calligraphy. The exhibition was a surprising development in 1985: few would have expected that the Chinese authorities would have allowed such a controversial show to be mounted at the Beijing China Art Gallery. Nevertheless, by the end of the show, it was clear that Modernism had arrived in the Chinese art scene, and calligraphy would be the site of its most immediate impact.
In the years following the Cultural Revolution, Chinese calligraphy has enjoyed a significant resurgence, albeit as an almost unrecognizably modern artistic mode. Within China and abroad, artists have taken up the earlier Modern ideas of casting aside the calcified, often stifling rigidity of tradition in an attempt to express a modern Chinese aesthetic. However, this movement has been not toward a popularization of calligraphy, not toward making it easily accessible to the Chinese population for political purposes, but toward making it relevant to a globalized artistic culture. The major calligraphers of the last fifty years, if they have not been simply adhering to the time-honoured traditions, have been actively engaging with Western aesthetics and dealing directly with issues of material, practice and expression. In sum, the boundaries of calligraphy have expanded far beyond any easy classification as characters become more and more obscured and ‘calligraphic’ works become more tightly interwoven with what might just as easily be called ‘abstract painting’.